James May

Gas and car illustration

Every little hurts

There are a few simple things that I require from government ministers. Taking a broad view, I would be quite interested to know what they are going to do about the funding of the NHS, since it’s a very complicated business and I won’t pretend for a moment to understand it. A few of them have made it their lives’ work, so I’m prepared to defer to them on that one.

On a more personal level, and since they are ultimately responsible for the people who might possibly be able to help me, I’d like to know exactly what government is proposing to do about the bloke who climbed through my living room window and nicked my portable telly.

There are other issues that are no doubt their concern: the pension crisis, benefit fraud, the war in Iraq, gay vicars and what the Monty Python team called the baggage retrieval system at Heathrow. These are all worthy of detailed study by suitably qualified people.

But what I don’t need is politicians setting me an example, unless it’s Charles Kennedy, since he likes a drink and so do I. And I especially don’t want them wasting valuable Commons time worrying about what sort of car I should drive, because I can work that one out for myself.

Apparently, some of these political people are being offered the option of a ministerial Toyota Prius or even a bio-fuelled Jaguar, while at the same time supporting a special tax on 4x4 cars in the interests of the environment. Nothing could be more irrelevant.

Let’s assume, for the purposes of this column, that global warming is a real threat and that energy consumption is at the root of it. So that would make big, overweight and thirsty 4x4s a bad thing, obviously.

And what difference, exactly, is a tax going to make to that? If you’re rich enough to run a big 4x4, a bit of extra tax isn’t going to amount to a hill of beans. More to the point, how does tax save the planet? If 4x4s are such a bad thing, why doesn’t the government simply ban them? I conclude that they don’t want us to stop driving them at all. They just want some more money.

And the same goes for smoking. If lung disease is such an issue, and the government feels duty-bound to do something about it, why isn’t smoking illegal? Taking heroin is, after all. The answer must surely be that smoking is ultimately good for the nation’s coffers, and that nobody really wants us to stop. Same goes for binge drinking and driving around in cars.

“I’d tax vegetables grown in Israel and flown to your supermarket, when they’re growing just as well in England” 

I was asked to take part in a radio debate about this 4x4 tax business, and I dearly wish I’d been available to do so. On the panel was a man from an organisation called something like the Federation Against All-Wheel Drive; that’s not quite right but I’m buggered if I’m going to dignify their mealy-mouthed cause by looking it up and getting it right. What I would say to this man is this: if you want to do something good for the world, can’t you think of something better than preaching to us about the exact technical specification of the cars we’re driving? Can’t you go and make some soup for the poor, or mend some old dear’s central heating boiler?

I’m not here to defend the motor industry, since it’s big and ugly enough to do that for itself. But I will say this, in the 10 years or so that I have been writing about cars, it has made an unparalleled effort to clean up its act. My car today is between 20 and 50 times less polluting than the ones I struggled to own as a student. It caused less pollution during its manufacture, it causes less pollution in use, and it will cause less when it’s thrown away.

What other industry or area of commerce has made a similar effort? Fashion? Construction? Other modes of transport? Publishing? Consumer electronics? I can’t name one. Every now and then someone comes up with a totally fatuous statistic that shows, for example, how much less CO2 would be produced if we turned our stereos off instead of leaving them on standby. Is that it?

Well, you might be thinking, the car was always a big culprit. But I’m not so sure. Figures I’ve heard state that road transport (and remember – that includes stinky Latvian tour buses as well as your Vectra) accounts for anything between 11 and 20 per cent of all so-called greenhouse gasses. Even if it’s 20 per cent, I’m left wondering about where the other four-fifths are coming from, and yet I hear nothing – nothing – about this in any populist debate about the environment. All I hear is some sanctimonious cant about how if I buy a slightly smaller car everything will be all right.

If I were in power, and I thought taxation was the sovereign salve for all environmental ills, here are a few of the things that would suddenly start costing you a lot more: vegetables grown in Israel and flown to your supermarket, when the same ones are growing just as well in England; replacement kitchens, since the one you have undoubtedly works perfectly well; bottled water from France, since there’s perfectly good stuff in the tap; plastic carrier bags, which aren’t even made here but are produced in places like China, and even if we recycle them they’re sent back to China to be made into more carrier bags and then transported here in ships that burn thousands of litres of heavy fuel oil every day; and so on. These are real-world concerns at least the equal of the Volvo XC90’s fuel consumption. Yet the only person I know who talks intelligently on these matters is, remarkably, a car enthusiast. It’s Paul Horrell.

I’m not going to be lectured about my driving habits by people who probably haven’t bothered to check their loft insulation in the last decade. I have, as it happens, and I’ve improved it. Leave us alone, and leave our cars alone as well.

Still no news on the stolen telly, by the way.


James May, Column

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